By Eilene Lyon
A lesson from my personal history that I was slow to learn: there is a certain type of person in this world who steals from his or her employer. They don’t just destroy the trust of their bosses, though. The impulses that drive embezzlers taint all their relationships.
I have a degree in accounting from Ohio State. From 1987 to 2009, I worked as a freelance bookkeeper for a variety of businesses in Durango. For 20 years, one of these was a resort condominium complex. The owner of the management company hired Cynthia to run the business in the late 1980s.
He was usually out of town himself and therefore had little oversight. He authorized me to sign checks, as well as doing the books. That’s a number-one no-no. Certainly I had many opportunities to embezzle funds, but the thought of doing so gave me the willies. And it blinded me to the possibility that someone else might be doing just that.
I was a nerdy, introverted bookkeeper, but Cynthia was a firecracker. She did an excellent job of bringing in new corporate clients for short- and long-term rentals. She worked her charm on me, too, befriending me to keep me close and on her team.
Statistics show that one thing most embezzlers have in common is living beyond their means. This might seem like an obvious tell, but Cynthia had a ready explanation. She came from a family of high achievers. Both her siblings were doctors. She had been part-owner of an oil company in Texas and made a ton of money from that period of her life.
She lived with her parents then, and she stored in their attic many a wardrobe box full of designer clothes – at least a dozen high-end ski suits, for example. She had so many shoes that she pasted photographs on the outsides of the boxes. Imelda Marcos had nothing on Cynthia.
To win my trust, she would pay for me to visit a dermatologist, because she knew my skin problems bothered me. We would go out dancing and she’d dress me in fancy sequined dresses and one of her numerous fur coats. I loved being in her orbit. It was fun.
I’m not sure what tipped off our boss, but he seemed sure that Cynthia had something to do with missing funds. The bottom line didn’t add up given the increase in business. I had to put in overtime to figure out how she pulled it off – and I lost another part-time job because of it.
Within a year or two, I met Cheryl, a friend of a friend. Like Cynthia, Cheryl wore very nice clothes, had expensive manicures and haircuts, but she lived in a trailer. She worked for Amoco (now BP) and later for a local building supply business. She claimed to be dating a big-wig in county government, but said his mother kept them from getting married. Funny, but not once did I ever see her with this guy.
Cheryl gave me a puppy (sweetest dog, ever) and helped me get together with a co-worker of hers (though she also seemed bent on sabotaging that relationship). It wasn’t until after she and I had parted ways that I read she had stolen more than $120K from the building supply company, nearly bankrupting the owner. Color me unsurprised.
I don’t recall the name of the third embezzler, since we weren’t acquainted, so I’ll call her Ann. Ann had worked for a property investor for many years. He owned one of the condos where I worked and was good friends with my employer there. After his experience with Cynthia, my boss began to suspect Ann of stealing from his buddy and recommended me as an investigator.
I had to go to Albuquerque and bring back box upon box of company records to examine for wrong-doing. Ann, dressed to the nines, piled on the charm when I came to the office to get the records (having found the place after she’d given me incorrect directions). It rang hollow. I’d seen this twice and finally gotten a clue. I didn’t trust her for an instant.
My search turned up the expected theft. Ann promptly got fired, much as Cynthia had. It bothered me that neither one was ever prosecuted for her misdeeds. It’s possible that the men who employed them didn’t want exposure for having trusted these thieves.
Cheryl was prosecuted, but I don’t know if she did time. I heard that some years after leaving Colorado, Cynthia got arrested for check fraud.
Perhaps by sharing these experiences, I can help some business owner or other organization to spot a potential problem. Evidence is ambivalent about whether women are more likely than men to commit this crime, but people in finance and bookkeeping are most likely to steal company or government funds.
Men tend to steal more money than women and small businesses are frequent targets. Large businesses also lose money to employee theft, though, and in much higher dollar amounts.
I can’t say I understand the type of insecurity that drove the embezzlers I’ve described, but it’s sad. They were all very intelligent, clever women who could have succeeded at anything they put their minds to; they chose to take the dishonorable path instead.